Chapter 78 Sinking
Li Ling Yue was helped into a spacious carriage outside the Princess of Wuyang’s mansion, and the carriage soon began to move towards the city gate.
As she sat inside the swaying carriage, Li Ling Yue stared blankly at a string of Buddhist prayer beads in her hand. She felt exhausted and weary, every inch of her body seemingly drained of energy.
Her maid, A’fan, knelt beside her and asked softly, “Princess, are you truly not returning to the palace to bid farewell to the Empress Dowager?”
The word “Empress Dowager” caused Li Ling Yue’s expression to shift slightly, revealing a trace of emotion.
Her eyes were slightly red and her nose was slightly blocked as she shook her head. “No. My mother’s health has declined greatly, and I fear that my presence will only cause her further distress. Besides, if she were to argue with His Majesty again, she may suffer another severe illness…”
Li Ling Yue was one of only three children in her mother’s care, with her sixth brother stationed at the border. The news of Li Ling Yue’s departure from the city was another heavy blow to her elderly mother, already weighed down by so much grief and worry.
“A’fan, please return to the palace on my behalf tomorrow and tell my mother that I cannot bear to see her again. I pray she takes good care of herself…” Li Ling Yue’s voice faltered and she looked down at the sandalwood prayer beads in her hand, their soothing aroma offering some comfort. “And please ask her to send Xuan Guang back to Fusang… His heart still belongs to his homeland, and I cannot bear to see him suffer on my account.”
A’fan looked at the princess with a heart full of sorrow and gently grasped her hand, as if trying to soothe a distressed child. “Don’t be sad, Princess,” she whispered. “Master Hui Xian once said that Xuan Guang had a very high Buddha nature. Perhaps he has already achieved his ultimate goal and become a Buddha, entering Amitabha’s Pure Land.”
Li Ling Yue rested her head on her maid’s shoulder, clutching the Buddhist beads and crying softly for what seemed like an eternity. Her eyes were swollen and her voice hoarse, but eventually she managed to calm down.
The carriage had already passed through the city gate and was now making its way along the official road towards the imperial tomb.
Li Ling Yue lifted the curtain and gazed towards the northeast horizon.
Her eyes strained to make out the distant blue sky and the green grassland, which seemed to merge into one another like a mirage.
With a deep breath, Li Ling Yue let the curtain fall back into place and turned to A’fan. She took her hand and spoke softly, “A’fan, of all the people around me, you are the only one I trust completely.”
A’fan sat up straight, her expression becoming solemn as she nodded in agreement. She was ready to listen to the princess’s every command.
Unlike many other young palace maids, she had not entered the imperial palace later in life to serve the princess. She had been following the Empress Dowager since the age of twelve and had taken care of both Prince Rui and the Princess of Wuyang alongside other palace maids. As a result, she had grown very fond of these two children.
Last year, when the princess was involved in an incident, all the palace maid and eunuchs around her were punished. The Empress Dowager, concerned for her safety, decided to transfer her back to the princess’s side for personal care.
“You must accompany Xuan Guang personally to Fusang. Let them go first to the vicinity of Hebei Province and tell them that it is to fulfill his wish to see the mountains and rivers before he dies. Then they can board a ship from Laizhou or Dengzhou. Tomorrow, I will write a letter for you to secretly give to Sixth Brother when passing through Youzhou.”
Li Ling Yue’s face was serious, and the gaze she gave him carried an unfamiliar sense of pressure and depth that left A’fan taken aback.
The elaborate plan to take Xuan Guang to see the mountains and rivers before he dies seemed less about fulfilling his wishes and more about the princess’s need to secretly send a letter to Prince Rui without being detected.
The princess, who had always been straightforward and honest, seemed to have changed in some way.
“Princess, I’m not sure…” A’fan hesitated, unsure whether or not to agree to her request.
Li Ling Yue’s eyes glinted with a hint of vulnerability, and she reverted to her previous delicate demeanor. She took A’fan’s hand and implored, “A’fan, you’ve watched me and Sixth Brother grow up. You must understand how I’m feeling. There are so many things on my mind that I can’t share with anyone else. Only Sixth Brother can truly understand. But you know that His Majesty still fears him, so I can’t speak to him openly. That’s why I had to come up with this plan…”
A’fan had matured over the years and couldn’t bear to see the little princess suffer. Whenever she saw Li Ling Yue’s eyes well up with tears, her heart softened, and she embraced her gently, reassuring her in a soothing tone. “Don’t worry, Princess. I understand and won’t let you down.”
“Mmm, A’fan, thank you,” Li Ling Yue held onto A’fan’s waist and whispered in a hushed tone, “Please don’t let mother find out, she’ll only worry.”
A’fan’s eyes glistened with tears, and she reached out to wipe Li Ling Yue’s eyes gently, nodding with a solemn expression.
With A’fan’s assurance, Li Ling Yue finally relaxed and allowed herself to drift off to sleep in the carriage.
Although the morning’s events had drained her, she couldn’t seem to shake off her restlessness. Familiar faces flashed through her mind, along with a jumble of heated and compassionate words.
She was truly at a loss and felt that she and Sixth Brother were kindred spirits in their troubles.
However, she was no longer the innocent princess residing in the depths of the palace, ignorant of the ways of the world. She understood that her current predicament, which had caused harm to others, was a result of her lack of sufficient power to choose what she desired.
In the vast Wei Empire, only one person held supreme power. If that person did not support her, then even as a princess, she would be nothing but a mere puppet.
Before the Late Emperor passed away, he urged his two sons to be close as brothers and support each other.
Unfortunately, it was the Eldest Brother who made the first mistake.
Upon returning to Chenghuan Palace, Li Zhi felt a sense of ease.
After being gone for over a month, the palace’s furnishings and layout remained the same. The maids continued to clean daily, and everything appeared unchanged. However, she couldn’t help but feel a little disoriented.
She approached the table, took an incense stick, and placed it in the censer herself. She breathed in the familiar fragrance until the smoke rose, releasing a familiar and delicate aroma. Only then did she relax and smile.
Chun Yue and Qing Zi stood on either side and exchanged a glance upon seeing the situation.
Chun Yue asked, “Miss, are you alright after being in the Zichen Hall earlier?”
Li Zhi smiled and looked back at the two who were worried but dared not ask, waving her hand repeatedly, “It’s nothing.”
She reached out and touched the table, slowly walking behind the folding screen. “It’s just that His Majesty probably won’t come often in the future.”
As soon as her words fell, everyone in the hall fell silent, as if they couldn’t believe what she said.
Wasn’t the meaning just now that the Emperor had lost his affection for the Noble Consort?
The Emperor personally left the palace last night to attend the wedding ceremony of the Noble Consort’s elder sister. He also had General Pei escort the Noble Consort back to the palace early this morning. It seemed that he was still very concerned. How could he have completely changed in just a morning?
But looking at her now, she didn’t seem to be joking at all.
Everyone looked at each other, and their gazes toward her gradually became tinged with pity and worry.
Li Zhi looked around the room, smiled lightly, and waved her hand. “There’s no need to worry about me. Please all go back to your rooms and take this time to rest in quietness.”
The room was already tidy, and the clothes that had been brought back had been put back in their original places. Everyone exchanged glances, but no one moved until Qing Zi bowed and left first. Only then did the others follow.
Chun Yue was the only one who stayed behind. She closed the door and walked up to Li Zhi, asking in a gentle voice, “Miss, what happened? Is it because of Fourth Miss?”
Li Zhi shook her head and took out a jar of preserved fruit. She picked one and put it in her mouth, and then let Chun Yue sit next to her as she explained what had happened earlier.
Chun Yue was torn between happiness and anger. She frowned and said, “It’s good that you’re okay, but Fourth Miss is too cruel. She bullied you when you were young, and now she’s really done something like this! Can His Majesty tolerate her?”
Li Zhi put another preserved fruit in her mouth and shook her head. “Don’t you know her temperament? She hates to see me and A’Zi living well. I warned her early on, but she didn’t listen. She’ll have a hard time in the future.”
The sour tang of the fruit still lingered in Chun Yue’s mouth, making her round face scrunch up with discomfort. Her previous anger had been replaced by curiosity as she spoke up, “Miss, you often speak of the future, but I have yet to see anything happen. Is something truly going to happen in the future?”
Li Zhi’s eyes sparkled with a faint smile as she looked out at the clear blue sky beyond the window. “Yes, I believe it is not far off.”
With Immortal Ancestor Yuan’s entry into the palace, everything that followed was naturally not far away.
Just as they were discussing the matter, Qing Zi returned with an odd expression. “Your Highness, Fourth Miss has gone to Zilan Hall. I asked around and learned that His Majesty wishes to confer upon her the title of ‘Lady of Yingguo’ and grant her residence in Zilan Hall.”
“Lady of Yingguo’? What kind of title is that?” Chun Yue was momentarily stunned, but soon grasped the situation and laughed incredulously. She didn’t know whether to feel relieved or bewildered. “Miss, you were correct. It has indeed arrived quickly.”
She had misunderstood Li Zhi’s earlier words.
Li Zhi simply smiled serenely and didn’t bother to explain further.
As the night fell, Li Zhi finished her dinner and took a brief walk outside her palace before returning to her chambers to bathe and prepare for bed.
Li Jing Ye had not visited her Chenghuan Palace lately, and it seemed he would not come anytime soon.
Despite the absence of the two palace maids who used to wait for her outside and their reports on the Emperor’s movements, Li Zhi remained engrossed in her book. Only Chun Yue and Qing Zi were present in the adjoining room.
After a long day of tension and anticipation, Li Zhi felt unusually weary. She dozed off before she knew it, oblivious to the book that slipped from her hands and onto her chest.
As the hour of Pig approached, a faint sound outside the window near her bed stirred the silence, but it vanished as quickly as it appeared.
Inside the chamber, Li Zhi slept soundly, undisturbed by any external noise.
Outside the window, the man waited for a response but received none. His expression grew serious as he pondered for a moment before carefully opening the window. His eyes rested on the figure lying next to the lamp, and he breathed a silent sigh of relief, a hint of a smile softening his previously stoic features.
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